Francois Vigneault (Shape Therapeutics)

EX­CLU­SIVE: Shape Ther­a­peu­tics rais­es $112M in bid to make RNA edit­ing — and a whole lot else — a re­al­i­ty

Two years af­ter spin­ning out of CRISPR pi­o­neer Prashant Mali’s lab, Shape Ther­a­peu­tics has a lot more cash and a slight­ly new mis­sion.

The com­pa­ny orig­i­nal­ly launched in 2019 with plans to de­vel­op ther­a­pies around a new form of gene edit­ing, one they hoped could bet­ter ad­dress cer­tain dis­eases than CRISPR or oth­er forms of gene ma­nip­u­la­tions. That’s still their goal, but CEO Fran­cois Vi­gneault has added a few oth­ers in the mean­time.

“The com­pa­ny re­al­ly start­ed as, how can we find a so­lu­tion to some of the lim­i­ta­tions of gene edit­ing?” Vi­gneault said. “But from there, we quick­ly re­al­ized there was a mas­sive bot­tle­neck in an­oth­er sphere of gene ther­a­py.”

Shape end­ed up spend­ing con­sid­er­able time and re­sources try­ing to de­vel­op and make broad­ly avail­able so­lu­tions to two of the biggest con­straints that have held up the broad­er field: man­u­fac­tur­ing and de­liv­ery. They’ll now have a lot more mon­ey to do so and bring for­ward their own med­i­cines, an­nounc­ing a $112 mil­lion Se­ries B on Thurs­day led by Decheng Cap­i­tal and Bre­ton Cap­i­tal.

Shape spe­cial­izes in RNA edit­ing; the com­pa­ny tries to de­vel­op ther­a­pies that in­ter­cept the bro­ken mes­sages that the DNA of pa­tients with cer­tain dis­eases sends out and cor­rect it be­fore it gets turned in­to pro­teins. That con­trasts with CRISPR and oth­er gene edit­ing ap­proach­es that try to di­rect­ly — and per­ma­nent­ly – al­ter DNA.

It does so by ex­ploit­ing a nat­u­ral­ly oc­cur­ring en­zyme that’s al­ready present in hu­man cells called ADAR. By send­ing in their own spe­cial­ly con­struct­ed strand of guide RNA, re­searchers can in the­o­ry re­cruit this en­zyme and get it to ma­nip­u­late spe­cif­ic strands of mes­sen­ger RNA in par­tic­u­lar ways. They could, for ex­am­ple, delete or add bases.

Shape is fo­cus­ing their ef­forts on neu­rons, where ADAR seems to work par­tic­u­lar­ly well — pos­si­bly be­cause it’s nat­u­ral­ly high­ly ex­pressed — and where, by con­trast, CRISPR com­pa­nies have had par­tic­u­lar dif­fi­cul­ty ap­ply­ing their more well-known tech­nol­o­gy. They have lead pro­grams in the rare ge­net­ic dis­ease Rett syn­drome and Parkin­son’s.

In de­vel­op­ing those ther­a­pies, Vi­gneault and his col­leagues ran square in­to the prob­lems every gene ther­a­py com­pa­ny has hit dur­ing the field’s 2010s resur­gence. The vi­ral vec­tors used to shut­tle genes (or in this case, RNA) are dif­fi­cult to man­u­fac­ture at scale. And it’s dif­fi­cult to de­vel­op ones that go pre­cise­ly to the right tis­sue and the right kind of cell in hu­mans.

“We found this [tech­nol­o­gy] is a ma­jor ad­van­tage in neu­rons and CNS dis­or­ders,” Vi­gneault said. “But on the de­liv­ery front what we dis­cov­er is a huge lim­i­ta­tion.”

So Shape en­gi­neered a cell line they claim can pro­duce more ade­no-as­so­ci­at­ed virus (AAV), the most com­mon vi­ral vec­tor used in gene ther­a­py, than any oth­er method. And they in­vest­ed in the tech­nol­o­gy to en­gi­neer AAVs, screen­ing mil­lions of AAVs in cells and mon­keys to de­vel­op ones par­tic­u­lar­ly suit­ed to reach­ing neu­rons or mus­cles.

That puts Shape in di­rect com­pe­ti­tion with com­pa­nies such as Affinia and Dyno, which are ded­i­cat­ed sole­ly to AAV en­gi­neer­ing and have raised hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars and signed bil­lion-dol­lar deals with Big Phar­ma for their vec­tors.

Vi­gneault said Shape will sim­i­lar­ly try to make their AAV and cell lines avail­able to oth­er groups in in­dus­try and acad­e­mia, while con­tin­u­ing to de­vel­op their own ther­a­pies in house and with larg­er com­pa­nies. They have broad am­bi­tions there, too, re­cent­ly up­dat­ing their “pipeline” on­line to show, rather than the few pro­grams clos­est to the clin­ic, a con­stel­la­tion of the dozens of dis­eases they be­lieve their ADAR tech is best suit­ed for, from Alzheimer’s to cys­tic fi­bro­sis.

“The idea is to build a slight­ly dif­fer­ent com­pa­ny than the typ­i­cal one,” Vi­gneault said. “First make a tool that’s dis­rup­tive, not an in­cre­men­tal im­prove­ment, and when you have that tool, make it avail­able so that you can help as many pa­tients as pos­si­ble be­cause one com­pa­ny can’t do it all.”

Cor­rec­tion: The ar­ti­cle has been to clar­i­fy Shape spun out of the Mali lab, not the Church lab.

Up­dat­ed: FDA re­mains silent on or­phan drug ex­clu­siv­i­ty af­ter last year's court loss

Since losing a controversial court case over orphan drug exclusivity last year, the FDA’s Office of Orphan Products Development has remained entirely silent on orphan exclusivity for any product approved since last November, leaving many sponsors in limbo on what to expect.

That silence means that for more than 70 orphan-designated indications for more than 60 products, OOPD has issued no public determination on the seven-year orphan exclusivity in the Orange Book, and no new listings of orphan exclusivity appear in OOPD’s searchable database, as highlighted recently by George O’Brien, a partner in Mayer Brown’s Washington, DC office.

Big week for Alzheimer’s da­ta; As­traZeneca buys cell ther­a­py start­up; Dig­i­tal ther­a­peu­tics hits a pay­er wall; and more

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John Evans, Beam Therapeutics CEO

Beam's base-edit­ed al­lo­gene­ic CAR-T gets FDA go-ahead af­ter four-month wait

The FDA wanted more information on four key areas before it would let Beam Therapeutics proceed with human testing for a cell therapy in a certain type of leukemia. It appears the biotech has answered the agency’s queries.

The US regulator cleared the base-edited, off-the-shelf CAR-T, Beam said Friday morning, lifting a hold from this summer. More details on specific next steps for the Phase I will come out next year, the Boston-area biotech said.

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Chris Kim, Liminatus Pharma CEO

A fledg­ling biotech goes SPAC route to bankroll can­cer vac­cine, CAR-T and CD47

A relatively unknown clinical-stage biotech — backed by a Korean lighting company and focused on a cancer vaccine out of a Thomas Jefferson University lab — is headed to Nasdaq via the blank check route.

Liminatus Pharma will get about $316 million in proceeds from the SPAC combination to fund its ongoing Phase IIa study of a cancer vaccine, bring a CAR-T therapy into the clinic and prep a CD47 immune checkpoint inhibitor for human trials, the company said this week.

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Bay­er starts work on $43M+ ex­pan­sion of OTC man­u­fac­tur­ing site in Penn­syl­va­nia

German pharma giant Bayer will be looking to make a significant investment into one of its US plants that produces over-the-counter drugs.

Bayer announced that it will spend $43.6 million to expand its facility in Myerstown, PA, a small town east of Harrisburg. Bayer plans to increase the site by 70,000 square feet and will have room for the installation of eight packaging lines and an area to install rooftop solar panels. The project is expected to be completed by 2025 and will add around 50 to 75 jobs.

US month­ly costs for biosim­i­lars 'sub­stan­tial­ly high­er' than Ger­many or Switzer­land, JA­MA re­search finds

As the global biologics market is expected to hit nearly the half-trillion-dollar mark this year, new JAMA research points to the importance of timely biosimilar entry, particularly as fewer biosimilars are entering the US than in Europe, and as monthly treatment costs for biosimilars were “substantially higher” in the US compared with Germany and Switzerland.

Among the three countries, biosimilar market share at launch was highest in Germany, but increased at the fastest rate in the US, the authors from the University of Zurich’s Institute of Law wrote in JAMA Network Open today.

Kirk Myers is shown in a still image from a new film series showcasing the efforts of HIV advocates funded by Gilead.

Gilead spot­lights HIV projects and the com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers dri­ving them in new mi­ni-doc­u­men­tary films

Gilead is going behind the scenes of some of the HIV initiatives it funds through grants in a new film series narrated by the people helming the projects.

The first four films and leaders come from across the US — Arianna Lint in Florida and Puerto Rico, Cleve Jones in San Francisco, June Gipson in Mississippi and Kirk Myers in Texas. Their HIV-focused efforts range from addressing unmet needs of the transgender community to delivering social services and high-quality health care in underserved communities.

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EMA pulls an opi­oid from the 1950s used to treat dry cough

The European Medicines Agency said Friday that it’s pulling from all European markets pholcodine-containing medicines, which are an opioid used in adults and children for the treatment of dry cough and in combo with other drugs as a treatment for cold and flu.

The decision to pull the medicines comes as the EMA points to the results from the recent ALPHO study, which show that use of pholcodine during the 12 months preceding anesthesia is linked to a risk of an anaphylactic reaction related to the neuromuscular blocking agents (NMBAs) used (with an adjusted OR of 4.2, and a 95% confidence interval of 2.5 to 6.9).

Illustration: Assistant Editor Kathy Wong for Endpoints News

As mon­ey pours in­to dig­i­tal ther­a­peu­tics, in­sur­ance cov­er­age crawls



Talk therapy didn’t help Lily with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. But a video game did.

As the 10-year-old zooms through icy waters and targets flying creatures on the snow-capped planet Frigidus, she builds attention skills, thanks to Akili Interactive Labs’ video game EndeavorRx. She’s now less anxious and scattered, allowing her to stay on a low dose of ADHD medication, according to her mom Violet Vu.

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